INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Touch to Touchless, Adapting to the Pandemic
We talked to Jim Spadaccini of Ideum about touchless exhibitions and COVID-19 pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jim Spadaccini: Thanks for asking. We are doing fine, and we are thankful for that. I know that this time has been very difficult for many families, obviously those who’ve lost loved ones, but also the many people who have suffered economically as the pandemic has disrupted so many businesses.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Ideum.
Jim Spadaccini: I founded Ideum at the end of 1999, back then, I had just left the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco, where I was the Director of Interactive Media. I founded Ideum with the goal of working with other organizations, exploring new technologies, and finding great collaborators to work with. That hasn’t changed in 20+ years, we are always looking for interesting projects and great partners to work with, and our staff is very talented. I feel lucky to have interesting and challenging work and to have wonderful people to collaborate with.
Our company does a lot of different things; we design exhibits and exhibitions, not just digital projects but some physical exhibits as well. We are particularly interested in exhibits that blend both the physical and the digital. We develop software, again mostly for public spaces, kiosks, touch tables, projection, etc. We have an IoT and Integration group that specializes in integrating technology into interesting spaces and physical exhibits. We also have a line of touch tables and touch displays that we’ve now sold in over 40 countries.
How does Ideum innovate?
Jim Spadaccini: It starts with a challenge. Either our partners or clients or our even staff might challenge us to try something new. Most recently, the pandemic has provided the challenge, and it has pushed us to innovate, to find solutions to the current situation. We’ve been exploring touchless technologies, we’ve developed a few hardware solutions including the Touchless Pedestal, and we’ve started an open-source initiative called Touchless. Design. This software initiative has been funding partly by Intel as part of its Pandemic Response Technology Initiative.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jim Spadaccini: It has been tough, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. We started out with supply chain issues, then our touch table business was directly affected, especially our rental business as tradeshows were quickly canceled. We’ve been adapting by altering our business models and redirecting staff from some departments to others. It is still a difficult environment for a company like ours that is focused on exhibits and technology for most public spaces. Obviously, museums, one of our main clients, are suffering through an unprecedented situation.
Still, we are hopeful, and we are continuing to work hard and to adapt. Being a self-funded company that has 20 years’ experience, we’ve learned a lot over the years, and we are applying it to the ups and downs that are part of the current environment.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jim Spadaccini: The disruption caused by the pandemic has led to some difficult choices, but to a certain extent, there are just more frequent and a bit more urgent than in “normal” times. Running a business always means there are always difficult decisions to be made. The lessons are the same, always try to be fair, try to be as transparent as possible, and work hard. You will never please everyone, there will always be naysayers, but that shouldn’t keep you from doing what is right.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Ideum in the future?
Jim Spadaccini: Our company has always been focused on the future. Some of that is inherent since we are a technology company, but rather than just cheerleading the latest tech, we are much more interested in the practical applications. We focus on the visitor experience, just like our partners and clients do. How can we use new technologies in interesting ways to either deepen the visitor experience or excite visitors about important topics and encourage social interaction?
For me, personally, these new types of visitor experiences are what I love. Working with a great team, smart partners, folks who are passionate about creating new and exciting experiences is what it is all about. I also love the fact that much of the work we do has meaningful content. Through our work visitors learn more about science, art, nature, history, and many other interesting topics. It is a great feeling to participate in developing interactive experiences that can inspire or enlighten visitors.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jim Spadaccini: Since Ideum does so many things, one could say we have lots of competitors in a lot of different verticals, lots of different markets. I don’t tend to look it that way. Not to say that when we are going after projects, we aren’t competitive, but we are friends and colleagues and often partners with lots of our “competitors.” We’ve been in a position to learn a lot from those types of collaborations they have been very beneficial to our company and the professional development of our staff.
Your final thoughts?
Jim Spadaccini: No question, this has been the toughest year for our company, but also so many others. Still, I am very grateful for our fantastic and understanding staff, our partners, clients, and colleagues. I’ve had conversations with nearly two dozen business leaders from other design firms, AV companies, museums, and other organizations. Everyone has been so supportive of each other and empathetic to the troubles we are all going through. As tough as this year has been, it does make me very hopeful about the future.
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